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A Special Flavor of Colorado Mountain Biking

Blood Sweat and Gears: Estes Park

Story by Max Ritter

“There’s no mountain biking in Estes Park.” For the longest time, I thought that was true, and never bothered looking for a way to prove that wrong. For most active Coloradans, Estes Park is a haven for rock climbing, backcountry skiing, and nature walks in Rocky Mountain National Park. Mountain bikes simply weren’t part of the mix – but it turns out that’s changed.

Like many mountain bikers living on the Front Range, I spent years riding the hallmark singletrack networks around Boulder and Golden – Apex Park, White Ranch, Walker Ranch, and Heil Valley – but I would rarely venture into the high country. I’ll blame it partially on lack of information about riding there, but mostly on the convenience of riding stuff closer to home. When I returned to Estes Park early this summer to link up with local rippers Corey Keizer, Ikhide Ikhigbonoaremen and the crew of both the  Estes Park Bike Coalition and the Overland Mountain Bike Association, I came with an open mind. I had done some preliminary online research on the trails in the area and had not come up with much. That meant one of two things: either there were no trails, or they were really well-hidden and nobody acknowledged their existence.

Like many mountain communities, this particular area of Colorado has a long and storied past when it comes to land use regulation Estes Park is surrounded by a mix of National Park, Wilderness, National Forest, State, County, and private-owned land. If it has a name, it probably exists here. In other words: an adventurous mountain biker’s worst nightmare.

Ripping trail with the best views around. | Max Ritter photo.

This June, I arrived in Colorado late on a Sunday evening, with instructions to meet Keizer at his favorite local watering hole, Ed’s Cantina. “I’m the white guy with tattoos and a plaid shirt at the bar,” read the text message. Keizer, who has called Estes Park home for most of his life, was sipping on a margarita and chatting with the bartender about his day out riding. It seemed like a scene from any mountain town in the West, except that here, Keizer was the exception. Surrounding us were large families from all over the country and elderly couples on vacation. Far from the usual for a riding destination.

Over dinner, we decided that we did in fact feel out of place. But that didn’t bother Keizer, who has made it his mission to celebrate the riding in his favorite town in Colorado. To him, Estes Park is a bit of a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of the Front Range, but he wants to encourage others to explore what the area has to offer – things best done on two wheels.

A Front Range Classic

The next morning, the two of us met up with Ikhigbonoaremen, who had connected with Keizer through his  @allmountainbrothers initiative, an effort to grow inclusivity in mountain biking through sharing content and stories online. The two come from radically different riding backgrounds, but somehow their styles beautifully meshed on the trail, feeding off each other’s energy and flow.

If you look hard enough, you'll find what you're looking for. | Max Ritter photo.

Our first ride took us to the outer reaches of Boulder County to the only trail I had ridden in the area before – Hall Ranch. Hall Ranch Open Space came to be in 1994, when Boulder County acquired the land and designated it as a recreation area. The zone was once a quarry that provided the sandstone used in buildings down the road at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Trail building projects resulted in the Bitterbrush, Nelson, and Antelope trails that loop in and out of sandstone buttes and rolling grassland. Those trails have since turned into well-manicured singletrack, perfect for everyone from an intermediate rider to an expert looking to test their skills at speed.

With stunning views of Longs Peak and Mt. Meeker, and an absolutely unmatched rock garden descent, Hall is a true Colorado foothills classic. With prairie dogs poking their heads out and vultures circling overhead, Ikhigbonoaremen led us through some sneaky lines on the mess of rocks and roots on the descent. Keeping an open mind on singletrack, especially around here, pays off. Look left and right of the trail, and you’ll find dozens of fun little trailside jibs to play around on.

Hall represents one extreme of the riding in the great Estes Park area – a firmly established riding area, complete with big parking lots, trailside tool stands, clean bathrooms, and a well-manicured trail system. Lots of people ride here, and rightfully so – it’s good. But venture a little into the mountains, and that scene changes quickly.

Let’s Get Lost in the Woods

After another evening sampling the margarita menu and delicious tortas at Ed’s Cantina, we woke up early the next morning to sample the opposite end of the spectrum of trails. It was time for Keizer to guide us through the maze of old-school singletrack trails just behind his house in Estes Park.

“I’m going to be completely honest, I don’t know where I am half the time up there,” said Keizer when I asked him where we were going. Our destination was Crosier Mountain, but we didn’t even know where to park or what trails were riding well. Keizer suggested we stop by the local Estes Park Mountain Shop for some beta. We ran into Zach Zehr, the affable shop manager, who immediately pulled out a pen and paper to draw us a map of where to go. There were drawings of a fence, a gate, a scout camp, and notes of avoiding private land, going left around a tree, right at a meadow, and through a clump of aspens - it was confusing, to say the least.

Crosier Mountain has it all. | Max Ritter photo.

The issue? Land use and access laws. Given my research before the trip, this didn’t really surprise me, but Zehr assured us that we’d be fine – he had ridden the trail the night before. The Crosier Mountain area is dotted by tracts of private land and National Forest. It also butts up against RMNP, where mountain bikes are prohibited off paved roads. In short, it’s complicated. Luckily, many of the private landowners will allow mountain bikers to walk their bikes across their land on old trails to access USFS trails beyond them. We took advantage of one of these easements, pushed our bikes through an old scout camp, and dropped into a screaming descent through aspen groves reminiscent of Crested Butte.

Scattered throughout these woods were massive rock features, much like the famous Lumpy Ridge skyline we saw above town. I could sense our crew itching to explore what lay above us. Ikhigbonoaremen was inspired, and proceeded to test his bike handling skills on some of the massive rock rolls in the woods.

Ikhigbonoaremen drops into the endless aspen groves. | Max Ritter photo.

As we finished our ride, we dropped all the way down to Glen Haven, a tiny town nestled one valley over from Estes Park. As we were pedaling back up the road, Keizer leant over and told the group with a sly smile: “Think it’s hard? Well you’re about to see the wall.” Confused, I quickly learned what he meant: a massive climb up a super-steep section of road to the top of Devil’s Gulch Road. We fought our way up it, gritting our teeth and gulping for air, and paused at the top to take in the massive view of Longs Peak and the mountains of RMNP.

The riding at Crosier feels like a true backcountry adventure. It’s obvious that the trail doesn’t see many visitors, but that gives it a unique flavor. It’s hard to get to, but the singletrack is technical and exciting, and it will show a good rider a version of Colorado mountain biking that’s very different from the mainstream.

Lesson learned from the day: If you are willing to do your homework, ask the right questions to the right people, and put in the physical work, you will be rewarded handsomely. Thanks to the help of Keizer and Zehr, the rest of us found something beautiful that we didn’t even know existed that morning.

The Stanley Park Bike Park has some of the most unique features we've ever seen, and it's right in town. | Max Ritter photo.

Before we headed to dinner that night, we had a few hours to explore a gem hidden in plain sight. Situated right next to Lake Estes, the Stanley Park Bike Park might be one of the most unique skills parks I have ever seen. It’s not your typical set of community-built dirt jumps. Rather, it’s a thoughtfully laid out mini-network of trails that use the natural features to create riding unlike any I’ve ever seen. Complete with an asphalt pump track, a larger dirt pump track with some jumps, and a handful of creative rock features that will keep you honest, the park was the perfect spot to spend the evening before heading in for beers at another local favorite watering hole: Rock Cut Brewing. It’s a great place to escape the tourist crowds.

From Corporate Retreat to Two-Wheeled Playground

We decided to leave the best for last. On our final day riding together, we tasted yet another fresh flavor of riding around Estes Park. After Larimer County officials purchased a 1,362-acre swath of land just southeast of town in 2007, the potential for developing a premiere mountain bike destination became clear. The land had been originally developed by Hewlett-Packard (yes the company that makes computers) as a corporate mountain retreat, and is lush with rolling forested hills and the stunning mountain views we had been enjoying all week.

Keizer leads the way on Hermit Park's Limber Pine trail. | Max Ritter photo.

With the help of local grassroots groups like the Estes Park Bike Coalition and the Overland Mountain Bike Association, trailbuilders put finishing touches on the Hermit Park Open Space trail network earlier this year. The fruit of their labor - the Limber Pine and Moose and Meadows trails - is the kind of riding that makes you feel good at mountain biking.

We started our ride at one end of the trail, and steadily pedaled along a rocky bench cut that offered glimpses of the snow-capped peaks across the valley. In true Colorado fashion, an early afternoon thunderstorm began dumping rain and hail on us, forcing us to scurry for cover under some rocks and trees. It quickly cleared, leaving behind a layer of the perfectly tacky dirt we had been craving.

Combining a mix of flow, technical features, and loads of creatively fun alternate lines, the rest of the five-mile stretch of dirt snaked through dense pine forests, open meadows, and those typical piles of lumpy Front Range rock. Limber Pine is a perfect example of how good trail building work will make an otherwise unassuming piece of land the perfect two-wheeled playground.

Making the magic happen. | Max Ritter photo.

On the far end of the trail, we ran into a crew of trailbuilders perfecting a section of singletrack. Limber Pine was about to undergo final review by County Commissioners, and the trail crew was putting some fresh dirt on berms to make it look perfect. When your county officials ride mountain bikes, you know the community is headed in the right direction. As we rode past, they told us to keep an eye out for some fresh alternate lines they had just put in down below. Our group happily complied.

Looking Ahead

That evening, Keizer suggested we take part in the touristing, so we checked out what’s probably Estes Park’s most famous attraction - the Stanley Hotel. The historic white building, which inspired the fictional Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining, was truly a sight to behold. Sitting above town, it commands a stunning panoramic view of the mountains and contains lavish interiors reminiscent of a movie set.

We sat down for dinner in the hotel’s main restaurant, surrounded by the same groups of people I had noticed in Ed’s Cantina on our first night - tourists that weren’t there for the mountain biking. We mountain bikers might have been in the minority, but one thing was for certain: we definitely didn’t feel like outsiders in Estes Park.

Doggos of Colorado + a stroll down Main Street. | Max Ritter photo.

We ate and reveled in the thoughts of our time spent riding and getting to know the community. It might be a small community, but it’s one that bands together in the pursuit of doing what they love: riding bikes, sharing the love and welcoming those who make the trip with open arms.

Mountain biking is by no means the main attraction around Estes Park, and might never be. But sometimes that’s a good thing. The locals sure know what they’re doing in terms of building and maintaining epic singletrack networks, so go and visit - they’ll be happy to show you around.

Blood Sweat and Gears Part 2: Vermont

Blood Sweat and Gears Part 1: Crested Butte

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